The following contribution comes from Charley Rosen, author of The Chosen Game: A Jewish Basketball History (November 2017). Rosen is a writer whose work appears regularly on Fanragsports.com. He previously worked as an NBA analyst for FOXSports.com and is the author of twenty-one sports books.
Why I wrote The Chosen Game
The seed that led to this book was planted deep in my soul by an incident that happened fifty-five years ago. But some background is needed to fully explain the circumstances.
I grew up in a multicultural neighborhood in the Bronx, among Italians, Armenians, Irish, a few “Negro” families, and several Jewish families. The most important thing we all had in common was our poverty, so being Jewish was no big deal.
My family never went to shule, lit Sabbath candles, or attended any seders. More than anything, we were “gastronomic Jews” who ate certain foods on certain holidays. Lotkis, matzoh brei, Gefilte fish according to the calendar. I only became aware that I was indeed a Jew when my parents unexpectedly decided that I should be bar mitzvah’d.
While my neighborhood buddies were playing punchball, stickball, and kick-the-can, I was compelled to take bar mitzvah lessons at home on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Thursdays after school. The first thing the old rabbi did when we were left alone to begin our lessons in the kitchen was to say, “Nu? Is there maybe some leftovers in the ice box for a hungry rabbi? A chicken leg, maybe?”
Afraid to deny him lest Jehovah strike me dead, I always let him take what he wanted. Then, while noshing on a piece of flanken, the fishcake, or the morsel of cheesecake in one hand, he would use the pointed talon on the forefinger of his other to lead me through the Hebrew words that I would be reading to officially make me a man.
He taught me the sounds and the melody but not the meaning thereof.
The ceremony took place in an old-fashioned shule, where the women sat in a separate section behind and above the lectern. And, following the rabbi’s yellow taloned finger along the holy scroll, I chanted my bah-hahs and Adonois perfectly.
Well, almost perfectly.
The trouble was that in one line instead of singing a single “Kadosh,” I added a second “Kadosh.” Immediately after I finished my performance, some kind of heavy something hit me on the back of my head. Then I felt another heavy object, this time high on my back. Then another, and another . . . Oy! That extra “Kadosh”! God was punishing me for my unholy transgression! With stones thrown down from heaven! My life was over!
Several shouts of “Mazel tov!” came next from the crowd in front of me and also from high above and behind me. “Rabbi! Rabbi!” I said, pointing to the women’s balcony. “What is it? What’s happening?”
“The women, they throw at you bags of candy to wish you good luck. But you shouldn’t eat them; you should instead give them to me.”
So, I was officially a Jew. But to me the entire business was so obscure, so bizarre, and so meaningless that it was easily dismissed.
The next time I became conscious of my Jewishness was in the summer of 1961 when I was a member of the gold-medal-winning U.S. Men’s Basketball team at the Maccabiah Games in Israel. Since everybody there was Jewish, there didn’t seem to be anything unusual about being a Jew.
Not until the early spring of 1965 did I first seriously identify myself as a Jew. The occasion was a jump ball to begin the championship game in the Middletown (New York) recreation league. My opponent of the moment was Jim Brownley, who had played college basketball at Seton Hall and was the coach of the varsity basketball team at Middletown High School. Just as the referee cocked his arm to toss up the ball, this is what Brownley said to me: “Jew bastard.”
My immediate reaction can be found within the pages of The Chosen Game. And the book itself constitutes the long-delayed flowering of that soul-bruising and identity-defining moment.